Race Report: Laurel Highlands Ultra 50K

Laurel Highlands Ultra, Pennsylvania

It has only been 13 months since I crossed the divide from my comfort zone of 26.2 miles in big cities and thousands of spectators to the somewhat underground world of ultrarunning described as anything longer than a marathon. I had had now signed up for my second 50K race in 8 days (on the back of my North Face mud fest).

This happened partly because my closest running buddies and I wanted a glamping (glorious camping!) weekend away from NYC, but also because my training plan called for it! The Laurel Ultra, an hour south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a famous point-to-point 70.5 mile race. I had been prodded and asked a few times to do this. As much as I wanted to, I’m a strict runner when it comes to my training plan, so thank goodness for the cop out option of ‘just’ a 50K instead!

A nice hilly start!

I studied the elevation profile as usual. Three early hill climbs appealed to me as a good hard effort in preparation for Leadville but the remainder of the course seemed flat(ish) in comparison. The race topped out at 3,000 ft, nothing on Colorado’s Hope Pass of 12,600 ft to come but that’s not a road trip weekend away.

Ready for the start; me, Ila, Alisa, Fiddy & Beck

Rick Freeman (the race director, who kindly excepted our very late entries), got us underway alongside the 50K relay teams, most notably my favorite team, “Karaoke at the Monk”, running trails for the first time! I’m glad me or Keila never shared with them the website description of the course before they signed up;

“This is a very challenging course. Difficult footing is the norm, as steep grades, logs, rocks, steps, mud and other obstacles abound.”

At the start, some guys bombed it out of the gate. I was not up for such craziness, note my reaction in the photo (below).

Are they for real?!

 As we had three friends in the relay, I knew I would see at least two friendly faces at each transition area; mile 12 and 20. I took advantage of this situation from a diabetic perspective. I would do ‘during’ activity blood tests which was a rarity for me.

Entering aid station #1

So, at mile 12, I saw Steven and Sheila. I said “blood tester” and “chews” to them like they were my servants! (haha, sorry guys). Blood test=155. OK, but I was 225 at the start so I knew I was decreasing. I grabbed the Powerbar chews (think adult cola bottles!) from Sheila and ate them in 10 seconds flat. I asked where I stood as it was hard to gauge with the relay race also taking place. I was 5th. The one problem, the other 4 were 15-20 minutes ahead. This sounded like last week all over again but today my legs were already tired and my body was not cooperating to chase them down.

Running through huge rocks was lots of fun

I decided to relax (it does happen occasionally) and enjoy the rest of the race for what it was. Afterall, this is not the big event and I was happy with 5th. It would still be my second highest ultramarathon finish. From here as I was now on a section of switch backs and rolling terrain on single track (my favorite kind of trail). Their were many wooden bridges to cross and huge rock formations to squeeze between. Trail running sure is a blast!

Green, green trails!

Mile 20; same drill with my friends helping me out. Blood test=195, still happy with that. I try to be in the 150-200 zone when running. Any higher and my body feels heavy and tired due to too much sugar in the blood (hyperglycemia), minus 80 and I will start to get weak and tired (hypoglycemia). The goal, don’t feel tired due to diabetes alone but if it’s because I’m a running mad man, that’s OK! Hypoglycemia (commonly referred to as “hypo”) can be the same feeling marathoners get when they “hit the wall”. It’s basically your body running out of gas (glycogen stores). Being diabetic, my gas tank can just keeps going down at a faster rate putting me in danger of collapsing or worst scenario falling into a coma. That’s when consuming fast acting sugar (simple carbohydrates) comes into play and brings me back to a safe level 80+mg/dL.

At 3,000 ft up the view is pretty sick!

After hitting the summit of the course at 3,000 ft I took a few seconds to soak up the view (right). Why not? I reached the last aid stop at mile 26. Although not a relay transition area, I expected my friends to be there. I thought “Wow, I was so fast those last 6 miles I must have finally beaten them!” Wrong. They got lost and went straight to the finish! I was not relying on this however; for one I had the aid station, more importantly I was wearing my Salomon backpack/vest filled with enough candy to host a Halloween party. Such a comfortable piece of equipment allows me to never be in danger of having a hypo while running and not being able to get out of it, especially in the middle of nowhere.

After running through some rare open fields which was a ski resort with a stationary chairlift overhead (I thought I had run onto the set of ‘A Sound of Music’)and two more hills the end was finally close with a very friendly sign saying “50K FINISH, TURN LEFT”. I felt so bad for the hardcore guys I was passing doing the real deal 70.5 race. They had 40 more miles to go. Thank goodness for the 50K option I thought once more, I was done.

That’s how a result board should look! Labels stuck on a piece of cardboard #iloveultras!

I crossed the line in 5th . My friends were there waiting and cheering and told me I could have got 4th. “What are you talking about?” I said. “I never saw anyone in the 50K race for the last 20 miles”. It was true, I was 17 seconds from 4th place but never even saw the guy until we had finished. Oh well, no big deal. The legend of Steve Prefontaine will tell you that 4th is the worst place to finish anyway!

Anyway, my glucose was 201. It was now time to get to work on bringing that down to 100. A Nike moto; “There is no finish line” explains the life of a diabetic. Continuous glucose monitoring, balancing my lifestyle with insulin intake is my 24 hour, 365 day job. As, I was adjusting my sugar levels, Keila came flying in for 3rd female, overall 8th and as for those relay newbies; they killed it with an amazing 2nd overall place. I was so happy for all of them. We headed back to our glamping retreat (a fellow diabetic’s B&B ironically) for a BBQ feast and some well deserved beers!

Smiles all round. The Laurel Ultra has been conquered!

 

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